If you’re one of those pet parents with a dog who will do back flips for a cucumber or carrot slice, consider yourself lucky. Very lucky.
If your dog is a discerning sniffer then you need to keep it interesting and nutritious. (And hopefully avoid carrying warm cheese in your pocket.) Creativity and care are your watchwords.
Here are five things to look for or avoid when selecting a healthy and delicious treat for your companion:
1. Where’s the beef?
- CHOOSE identifiable animal protein (e.g. beef, chicken, lamb, salmon) that meets USDA or FDA standards for human consumption.
- AVOID generic, undisclosed protein and fat sources like: meat, meat and bonemeal, poultry fat, animal fat, animal digest, byproducts, byproduct meal or natural flavors.
When reading an ingredient panel you’ll want to see an identifiable protein as the first ingredient. If you see anything of an undisclosed source (e.g. “meat”) it has most likely come from rendered down diseased, decomposed or tainted animal sources (known as “4-D”). It also may contain residues of pentobarbital, the euthanasia drug. All these substances must be avoided.
All animal proteins should meet USDA or FDA standards for human consumption. Look for this wording somewhere on the package. If you don’t see it, choose another brand or call the manufacturer to ask. Just because it says “chicken” doesn’t mean it hasn’t come from a 4-D animal. (Read: 4-D)
Be wary of “natural flavors.” This may be a dumping ground for animal digests and 4-D ingredients. FDA allows digestive tract contents to be processed into animal feed. They say:
“With respect to flavors, pet foods often contain digests, which are materials treated with heat, enzymes, and/or acids to form concentrated natural flavors. Only a small amount of a chicken digest is needed to produce a ‘Chicken Flavored Cat Food,’ even though no actual chicken is added to the food…” [emphasis added].
2. Hay is for horses.
- CHOOSE vegetables, fruits, grasses and steel cut oats as your ideal complex carbohydrate sources.
- AVOID wheat, corn, and soy as dogs cannot digest these ingredients, gluten grains (e.g. rye, barley); and minimize rice.
Countless dog foods and treats include wheat, corn and soy in various forms like flours and meals because they are cheap. Feeding them to a dog is as absurd as including hay in a school lunch program. Dogs can’t digest wheat, corn and soy. They promote GI disturbances and systemic inflammation.
Grains should be minimized in a canine diet; gluten should be avoided. The friendliest of all grains is steel cut oats. It’s gluten free, rich in potassium and calcium, and low on the glycemic index. It’s lower even than nutrient-rich vegetables like pumpkin and sweet potato, and flours like pea or garbanzo bean – and therefore less likely to trigger inflammation.
Butternut squash, blueberries and bananas are nutritious and add hints of natural sweetness which dogs can taste. In biscuit treats look for flours like protein-packed buckwheat which is not a grain at all and therefore gluten free.
3. Less is more.
- CHOOSE shorter ingredient panels with simple ingredients you have in your own kitchen.
- AVOID the Filthy Five preservatives; be cautious of glycerin
Cancer is the leading cause of death in dogs. Fifty percent of dogs over 10 develop the disease. Wolves in captivity live twenty years; their canine cousins live half that. Diet is arguably a reason. The Filthy Five preservatives most often found in pet food and with the highest correlation of health problems are: ethoxyquin, BHA, BHT, TBHQ, and sodium metabisulfite. These chemicals have been associated with everything from cancer, to liver and kidney problems, asthma, coma and death.
Ethoxyquin is an especially sneaky substance. While not listed on the label, it’s often present in fishmeal. If you see fishmeal on the label, and are not purchasing a super-premium brand that identifies their fish as arriving fresh to their facilities, it likely contains ethoxyquin and should be avoided.
Glycerin (aka “natural glycerin”) is a sugar and filler that’s most often found in soft or semi-moist food or treats. Animal food is the new dumping ground for the surplus of methanol-laced glycerin that’s a natural byproduct of biodiesel production. Methanol is highly toxic. (Read: Glycerin).
4. Fat in moderation, nix refined sugars and additives.
- CHOOSE healthy fats
- AVOID sugar and MSG (including hydrolyzed proteins)
Dogs metabolize fat differently than humans. The ideal diet for healthy dogs is high in protein, moderate in fat, and low in carbohydrates. Good fats include salmon oil (it’s rich in Omega 3 fatty acids that beat inflammation), olive oil, the fats from identifiable animal sources (e.g. lamb). In treats fats can also come from sources like various cheeses or all natural peanut butter.
Treats with yogurt and naturally lactose-free cheese are fine in moderation for healthy, active dogs of proper weight. (Most dogs are lactose intolerant.) Strictly limit sugars as they trigger diabetes, obesity and dental problems. Look for unrefined sugars like raw unprocessed honey or blackstrap molasses.
It’s estimated that over 50% of US dogs are obese. MSG may play a big part; it can more than triple insulin levels making even the most physically active beings fat. You may not see MSG on a label unless you’re also looking for its aliases like any type of hydrolyzed protein (e.g. hydrolyzed soy protein).
The FDA says: “hydrolyzed proteins, used by the food industry to enhance flavor, are simply proteins that have been chemically broken apart into amino acids. The chemical breakdown of proteins may result in the formation of free glutamate that joins with free sodium to form MSG. In this case, the presence of MSG does not need to be disclosed on labeling.”
5. Know the country of origin
- CHOOSE foods made and sourced in the USA, Canada or other nation with similar standards
- AVOID food and ingredients from China
Contamination by pesticides, natural toxicants, industrial chemicals, heavy metals, and banned or intolerable levels of substances plagues China’s human food supply. Many pesticides and fertilizers are unregulated, illegal drug use in livestock is rampant, the resale of spoiled or mismarked food is commonplace, and agriculture with nearly 5 billion tons of untreated manure and millions of tons of pesticides and fertilizers running into rivers and waterways has exceeded industry as China’s biggest environmental polluter. One billion Chinese – 80% of the population – fear their food. (Read: China.)
The US imports more pet food and ingredients from China than anywhere else by far. China’s market share reached 70% of vessel imports in 2011; it continues to grow. US manufacturers buy China’s goods, mix it together here, and call it USA Made.
Unfortunately it’s not enough to look for USA Made pet food. It’s no longer wise to trust FDA with the safety of pet food ingredients – produced here or acquired from abroad (Read: 4-D). And it’s certainly not realistic to think that pet food exported from China adheres to an equal or higher standard than the food it produces for its own people. Even here in the US, FDA breaks our own laws by allowing unfit, toxic food to pass into animal feed.
Health conscious consumers must be aware. We must ask pet food makers where their ingredients originate. We must find out if the foodstuffs used are fit for human consumption in the US. And we must be prepared to spend more on premium foods to get the answers we want to hear.
A trip to McDonalds will always be cheaper than a trip down the produce aisle of our local grocer. Over time that cheap, fast food will make us fat and sick. A vibrant life is fueled by farm fresh food. The same rule applies to the health of our furry family members. Keeping them with us for the long haul means buying good whole foods.